Home » 2014 » June

Monthly Archives: June 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction •1/2

kinopoisk.ruStarring: Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor
Director: Michael Bay
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 165 minutes
Release Date: June 27, 2014

Cade Yeager & Optimus Prime: Duo, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Family Heroes)

Lockdown: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Pure Evil Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

reel-1 480px-One-half.svg villain-1 h-logo-2

scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Well, Greg, we just survived another Transformers movie.


Let’s find out if any of the heroes underwent a transformation…


The movie begins with scientists discovering that Transformers killed all life on earth 65 million years ago. We also learn that five years ago, Transformers were narrowly defeated in the ‘Battle of Chicago’, which left Transformer debris and technology scattered over North America. Then we meet Texas inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), his beautiful teenage daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), and his friend Lucas (T.J. Miller). Cade dreams of using abandoned Transformer technology to create inventions that will make his family rich. Meanwhile, his home is being foreclosed, and his daughter is mad at him for being irresponsible and overprotective.


Lucas, unbeknownst to Yeager, has called the Feds because the Transformer they found is Optimus Prime who has a bounty on his head. The CIA is out to destroy all Transformers (both the good Autobots and the evil Decepticons) in favor of a new robotic technology built by the company KSI (assisted by galactic bounty hunter Lockdown). The CIA operatives descend on Yeager’s Texas farm and he, his daughter, and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) are on the run with Optimus Prime and what is left of the Autobots.


Greg, Age of Extinction puts the Stink in Extinction. This is easily among the worst movies of 2014. There are so many problems with the film that I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s start with the obvious: Director Michael Bay clearly worships at the altar of the “More is Better” philosophy of movie-making. It’s the idea that more action, more chase scenes, and longer movies are better. The word that comes to mind to describe this mess rhymes with “cluster-truck”. And yes, we see a lot of trucks in the movie, because of course more is better.

For me, watching this movie was an endurance contest, with millions of my brain cells, already damaged by watching past bad movies, fighting for survival. I’m shocked that Mark Wahlberg agreed to participate in this mess — he’s proven himself to be a skilled actor capable of attracting far better movie roles. In Transformers: Age of Extinction, Wahlberg is reduced to uttering one hackneyed and predictable line after another. For 160 minutes, he’s either being chased by Transformers or protecting his daughter from danger. I felt sorry for him.


I feel your pain, Scott. I was also struggling throughout the nearly 3-hour film to reconcile the multiple plot lines (father/daughter/boyfriend, CIA/alien/Transformer, entrepreneur/inventor, Autobot/alien/Decepticon) with only limited success. If it is any consolation, this is probably the best of the Transformers movies with the addition of Wahlberg over troublesome actor Shia LaBeouf. I’ve sat through all four of these films and it’s clear they appeal to a very specific audience.

The film is too intense for smaller children and a bit too childish for grown adults. It hits its sweet-spot with 13-25 year-old boys and fans of the original Transformers show. It must be a fairly big demographic because over this weekend alone, Transformers brought in about $100 million. It is also on-target to be the first movie to garner $1 Billion in worldwide revenues. There’s no doubt that Michael Bay knew what he was doing with this film. Whether you like the film or not, it reaches its audience and in a big way.


The money this movie will make pains me; it is just so undeserving. Never has a major movie relied on so many tiresome set-ups and situations. There is the damsel in distress, shown in full shameless fashion about 6 dozen times, as poor Tessa needs either her dad or her boyfriend to save her repeatedly. There is the overused idea of government higher-ups conspiring against us all and sticking it to the little guys. There is a little Jar Jar Binks character whose main role is to annoy us even further. There is a 30-second speech that Yeager gives to a bad guy, Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci), a speech that miraculously converts Joyce to the good guys’ side.

Let’s examine the quality of the hero’s journey. To me, this film appears to feature a couple of group ensemble heroes:  The Yeagers are a family unit and the Transformer team, led by Optimus Prime, is a police/military unit. You could say that Yeager’s character does evolve, as his hatred for Mary’s boyfriend eventually turns to admiration. This change, of course, is painfully predictable and hardly convincing. Several basic elements of the hero’s journey are here, although they lack depth or interest.


The lead heroes are Yeager and Optimus Prime. Prime is feeling let down by the human race as he came to Earth to save us from the evil Decepticons. Now, he is hunted by humans and he has lost the urge to keep humans safe from their own stupidity. He undergoes a transformation as Yeager pleads with him to help his family and all of mankind. Admittedly, this is a pretty weak story arc. Still it is stronger than what we’ve been fed in previous incarnations of the Transformers cinematic universe.

The villains aren’t much better. We are treated to a good performance by Kelsey Grammer (who, by the way, also appears in Think Like a Man, Too released last week). Grammer’s character is a typical bad guy government bureaucrat who is running the CIA. Like other villains of this type, we don’t get much backstory, only that he is evil. He stereotypically does not get his hands dirty and enlists henchmen to perform his evil-do.

And on the Transformer side of the aisle, there is the evil Lockdown who is an intergalactic bounty hunter. He is also of the pure-evil cast and offers no real counterpoint to Optimus Prime except for an extended robot battle in the climax.


I’m fascinated by the way movies portray the head villain. Grammer’s character, Harold Attinger, plays a stereotypical head mastermind who rarely gets his hands dirty and spends most of his time telling his henchmen what to do. We’ve seen this villainous structure in many other movies. For some reason, filmmakers have decided that while the main hero is going to take bullets, fall from buildings, and get physically battered, the main villain is a central command figure who only strains himself making all those tough evil decisions.

One other word about the Transformers themselves. They are imposing mechanical beasts that serve as yet another example of the movie industry’s fetish for size, especially when it comes to villains. How many behemoths have we seen in the movies this past couple of years? I was struck by the shape of these manly, macho mechanical beasts — they sport massive biceps and pecs and teeny, tiny, almost Barbie Doll waists. Do robots really need to show bulging muscles to do their dirty work?


Scott, you called Transformers the worst movie of the year. You may have forgotten the travesty and complete waste of time that was Transcendence. Or the painfully unfunny Ride Along. Or completely misguided Labor Day. Still, I have to admit Transformers: Age of Extinction certainly does rate down there with them. For an excruciatingly long overdose of robotic chaos I give this film 2 out of 5 Reels.

The heroes are very plain-brown-wrapper and do not stretch our imaginations very far. Wahlberg does a good job of playing the father-who-cares and Optimus Prime “transforms” a bit too. I give them just 2 out of 5 Heroes.

There is no new ground with the villains in this story. The Stanley Tucci character is a Steve Jobs inspired head of corporation who is turned from evil to good. Grammer’s character is right out of the evil government playbook. And Lockdown was not even entertaining. I give these poor sketches of characters just 1 out of 5 Villains.

Movie: reel-2 Villains: villain-1 Heroes: h-logo-2


Greg, you began this review by pondering whether there was a transformation in the movie. Yes, this is a Transformers movie and so of course there were plenty of transforming events. Chief among them was my transformation from a happy man at the start of the film to a bitter curmudgeon who felt robbed of two and a half hours of his life at the end. A more apt name for this movie is Skunkformers or Trashformers. This movie is borderline Hall of Shame material and barely manages 1 Reel out of 5.

The heroes were wafer-thin, predictable, and uninteresting. Wait, I take that back. There is one interesting character, Lucas Flannery, but he’s killed off early in the film. His quick exit was a portend of things to come. There are elements of the hero journey in this film but they are completely overwhelmed by the relentless onslaught of senseless chase scenes, explosions, and CGI chaos. Your rating of 2 Heroes out of 5 seems about right.

The villains were familiar retreads of villains we’ve seen a thousand times before. I thought Kelsey Grammer did a nice job in his role, but he and Wahlberg were both good actors trapped in a cinematic mess. I’ll agree with you that 1 Villain out of 5 is an accurate rating here.

Movie: reel-1 Villains: villain-1 Heroes: h-logo-2

Jersey Boys ••••

Jersey_Boys_PosterStarring: John Lloyd YoungErich BergenMichael Lomenda
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Marshall BrickmanRick Elice
Biography/Musical/Drama, Rated: R
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Date: June 20, 2014

Franki Valli: Single, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Classic Lone Hero)

DeVito: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villain)

Crewe: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

reel-4 villain-3  h-logo-3

Relax. Frankie goes to Hollywood!


scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Turns out that Frankie experiences some peaks and vallies.  Let’s recap.


It’s the 1950’s and young Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) is a teen living in New Jersey. He’s a good boy with a gift for singing. We learn that there are only three ways to get out of Jersey: join the army, get “mobbed up” or get famous. Frankie appears to be doing two out of the three as he’s best buds with mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) who is grooming Frankie to be a great singer.


Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) has a band and takes an interest in Frankie’s unique vocal talents. Tommy also involves Frankie in some of his crime sprees, but Frankie straightens out and is eventually invited to join Tommy’s band. An established songwriter, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) joins the group, and then Frankie falls in love with a beautiful woman named Mary (Renee Marino). The band appears headed on a promising trajectory but Tommy’s criminal involvement with the mob spells deep trouble for the band.


Scott, I am usually skeptical of biopics, especially those about musicians and pop music stars, but I was very happy with Jersey Boys. I have also never really enjoyed the music of the Four Seasons, but this movie added such dimension and color that the story of these four young men from Jersey really hit home with me. I had a very good time at director Clint Eastwood’s latest offering.


I found Jersey Boys to be a highly enjoyable romp through the world of early rock’n roll. The music is fun and fresh, and the casting in the movie is spot-on. Frankie Valli’s physical and musical uniqueness had to be a considerable casting challenge but John Lloyd Young rises to the occasion. He does a phenomenal job portraying Valli.

As a biopic, we’re witness to the complete hero journey, from Valli as a raw 16-year-old to Valli as a grizzled geezer. Valli’s entire professional life is challenged by several factors, not the least of which is the corrupting influence of Tommy DeVito. We can see that Valli is more talented and more scrupulous than DeVito, yet has trouble extricating himself from DeVito’s control.

 


It’s a wonderful true-life hero’s journey after all. There is a scene where all the Four Seasons are assembled in Gyp’s house and a loan shark want’s money from Tommy. Frankie could feed him to the sharks, but he steps up and takes on Tommy’s debt. This is a huge moment where we see that Frankie is no longer a young kid living in Tommy’s shadow. He is a full-grown adult taking responsibility for himself and his friend.

There aren’t a lot of villains in this story. Gyp DeCarlo is soft-sold as a mafioso with a heart of gold. The record companies are given a pass as they took advantage of the boys. Frankie’s wife is portrayed as an alcoholic wife-from-hell who doesn’t appreciate him and constantly complains about his absence from home. These don’t really raise to the level of villains. So we’re left with a nice story of a singer’s rise to fame and fall from grace. Still, a very enjoyable ride.


You’re right, Greg, there are several oppositional forces at work, serving as obstacles in the way of Frankie Valli’s success. In addition to Tommy DeVito, there is Bob Crewe, the producer who relegates the band to singing back-up vocals for over a year. Another oppositional force is the rough neighborhood in which Valli grew up. He had to overcome a challenging environment and some difficult people.

And let’s not overlook the sidekick in the story — Bob Gaudio, whose songwriting ability meshes beautifully with Valli’s unusually soaring vocal style. Valli’s breakout into the big-time of rock’n roll depended entirely on his collaboration with Gaudio, who is portrayed as both savvy and virtuous. Overall, the developmental arc of Valli’s self-confidence and leadership ability in the band is a joy to watch. It’s a nice hero’s journey.

 


I fully enjoyed this trip into Rock-n-Roll history. Jersey Boys illustrates the genesis of what could be considered the first boy band. It’s a story of friendship and loyalty as well as the growing pains of stardom. I give Jersey Boys 4 out of 5 Reels.

The hero in this story is Frankie Valli and he goes through all the phases of the hero’s journey. Sadly, with little opposition he doesn’t rise to the level of heroic action that I’d like to see. I can give Frankie only 3 Heroes out of 5.

The villains in this story were not very clear. Frankie has some obstacles to overcome, but no one in the story was really trying to keep Frankie and the boys down. I give Jersey Boys only 2 out of 5 Villains.

Movie: reel-4 Villain: villain-2 Hero: h-logo-3


Jersey Boys is a must-see for any fans of the early days of rock’n roll. Director Clint Eastwood continues to turn out quality movies, and amusingly he sneaks in a brief clip of his role in an early spaghetti western. Jersey Boys oozes energy, pop, and pizzazz. I’m happy to also award this film 4 Reels out of 5.

Nothing disturbs me more than agreeing with you, Greg. As you point out, the hero’s journey is quite good here. But it doesn’t rise to the level of outstanding because our hero is simply a musician who overcomes obstacles to star in the music industry. There is no great moral achievement, which is the ultimate goal of a quality hero story. This shortcoming reduces my rating of Frankie Valli’s heroism to a mere 3 out of 5 Heroes.

The villains are fairly interesting here, especially Tommy DeVito, who is such a classless douche-bag that we’re left wondering why Frankie Valli didn’t part with him years before DeVito dragged everyone down into a financial abyss. We’re witness to DeVito’s full backstory and his inability to rise above his mobster mentality. Once again, we see this inability to transcend personal weaknesses as a defining characteristic of villains. So I’m going to give DeVito and the two other oppositional characters (Crewe and Mary) a hefty 4 Villains out of 5.

Movie: reel-4 Villain: villain-4 Hero: h-logo-3

22 Jump Street ••1/2

22_Jump_Street_PosterStarring: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Ice Cube
Director: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Screenplay: Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel
Action/Comedy/Crime, Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Date: June 13, 2014

Schmidt & Jenko: Duo, P-P Moral, Pro (Untransformed Buddy Heroes)

Mercedes: Single, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Mastermind Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

reel-2 480px-One-half.svg villain-1villain-half  h-logo-2

scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s looking like Jump Street is a much longer road than we thought.


And I enjoyed the ride a lot more than I imagined I would. Let’s recap:


Our two heroes from 21 Jump Street, Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Greg Jenko (Channing Tatum) are assigned the task of going undercover at a local university. Apparently, the use of a new illegal drug called WHY-PHY (work hard yes, play hard yes) has reached epidemic proportions and recently killed a young coed. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube) wants Schmidt and Jenko to locate and arrest the suppliers of this drug.


Schmidt and Jenko arrive on campus and immediately try to merge into the local scene. They are doing well despite looking older than their peers. Schmidt befriends a young woman (named Maya, played by Amber Stevens) who happens to have been the across-the-hall neighbor of the deceased coed. Meanwhile, hunky Jenko is embraced by a local fraternity where he is becoming best buds with the captain of the football team (Zook, played by Wyatt Russell). This new pairing is splitting up our buddy cops and is the bromance portion of our story.


Greg, although there are some occasionally amusing moments in 22 Jump Street, I just couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for this movie. The story and premise are pretty much pointless. Now I will admit that I’ve enjoyed some pointless comedies in the past, but for a pointless movie to be enjoyable, some elements must truly stand out as excellent. The jokes have to be stellar and consistently good throughout the movie, or the characters must be particularly memorable. I didn’t see that here.

22 Jump Street features some clever humor at times, as when our two heroes remark that Ice Cube’s office looks like a cube of ice. But these moments of cleverness are in short supply. One long-running joke is that the two main male friendships in the movie (between Schmidt & Jenko, and between Jenko & Zook) have some of the characteristics of a gay relationship. This joke isn’t very funny and actually becomes painful to watch as it’s milked repeatedly over 90 minutes. Another tired joke is that Schmidt and Jenko look too old for their roles. Yes, we get that — over and over again.


I liked this film a lot more than you did, Scott. This was a very clever look at the typical buddy-cop sequel. There are constant references made to how “this case is exactly like the last one.” And how Schmidt and Jenko must stop trying to do something different and solve this case just like they did last time. In other words, we all know this is a sequel. We all know that the audience expects a retread of what they’ve seen before. Now just go out there and give it to them.

Within that context, the movie delivers a very sardonic look at the state of movies and their sequels. There are so few new concepts in Hollywood. Last year of the 75 movies we reviewed, 15 were sequels. That’s a whopping 20%. 22 Jump Street’s writers knew what was expected of them – to do the same as last time only bigger. But they didn’t – they delivered a perfect send up of the Hollywood sequel. I think it was a very smart movie.


As much as I like Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, they aren’t funny. At least not to me. They are likeable and amusing, but that’s it. So the running jokes fell flat for me, and not much was going on that held my interest. 22 Jump Street is not only a movie that is constantly winking at itself, it is a movie that is winking at it’s own winking. This isn’t the first film that pokes fun at itself and its genre, and it isn’t close to being the funniest, either.

As you might expect, the buddy hero story here is inconsequential. Goofball comedies aren’t designed to deliver any kind of meaningful message about life or about how people grow or change. So we’re presented with a parody of how buddy cops grow apart and then in the course of events are brought closer together at the end. The characters aren’t meant to be taken seriously, so there isn’t much meaningful analysis we can do here.


Which is exactly the point of this spoof. It takes a look at the buddy-cop hero archetype and plays it to the extreme. For every earnest attempt at creating a buddy-cop movie, there is a joke in 22 Jump Street that pokes fun.

And there are other side jokes that are great. The duo are seeking out a man with a tattoo on his bicep who is the drug supplier. Jenko is on the tail of a college football player (by going undercover as one of the players) only to learn that the tattoo his suspect has is of a … wait for it … red herring. Not the tattoo they were looking for.

The villains are like typical villains we’ve seen in other buddy-cop stories – virtually invisible until we need a chase scene to wrap up the story. And 22 Jump Street delivers on that as well. The villains are painfully ordinary and typical and just what you’d expect. But there’s a twist on who the kingpin is – just as most buddy-cop movies might deliver. Even in creating their villains, 22 Jump Street is keenly aware of the fact that they’re in a sequel making fun of sequels.


22 Jump Street is a movie that I wanted to like but just couldn’t. I have to give them credit — the filmmakers put a lot of effort into this movie, almost as if they realized they had almost nothing to work with and therefore had to pull out all the stops. I give them an “A” for effort here. But the movie deserves only one and a half Reels. I’ll generously round up and make it 2 out of 5.

The buddy heroes were not terribly memorable people, nor was their journey a notable one at all. The less said the better here. Again, I’ll give them 2 out of 5 Heroes. As you note, Greg, the villains play a peripheral role in the movie. But I do need to give a shout-out to the stand-out performance delivered by Jillian Bell who plays the student roommate villain. She is by far the most interesting character in the movie, as well as the funniest. I wish we could have seen more of her in the film. Overall, I’ll give the villains a rating of 2 out of 5.

Movie: reel-2 Villains: villain-2 Heroes: h-logo-2


I had the opposite opinion – I expected to hate this film but was dragged into its farce kicking and screaming – with laughter. You’re right, this is a film that knew a sequel would be ridiculous – so the filmmakers made it ludicrous. And good for them. Still, the joke can only go so far. While I enjoyed myself, grudgingly, I can only award 3 out of 5 Reels for a comedy that satisfied both those who wanted a sequel and those who dreaded one.

The heroes are not really superb – they are the typical buddy-cops we’ve come to expect from such films. They don’t inspire us to great heights or warn us of great depths. I can only award these caricatures 2 out of 5 Heroes.

I have to agree with you on the villains. The typical bad guys are boring and perform their role. It’s only the introduction of the roommate from hell that makes the villains rise above complete worthlessness. I can only give her 1 Villain out of 5, however.

Finally, if you have any doubt about whether 22 Jump Street in any way takes itself seriously, just sit around for the ending credits. It will definitely fill you in on what is yet to come.

Movie: reel-3 Villains: villain-1 Heroes: h-logo-2

The Fault In Our Stars •••••

Fault_in_our_starsStarring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Nat Wolff
Director: Josh Boone
Screenplay: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Drama/Romance, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Release Date: June 6, 2014

Hazel & Gus: Duo, P-PP Emotional, Pro (Romantic Divergent Classic Heroes)

Cancer: System, N-N, Ant (Nature Mindless Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

reel-5 villain-3 h-logo-4h-logo-half

Scott, there’s not a flaw in Fault In Our Stars.


scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

There are no faults but plenty of stars. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to teenage cancer survivor Hazel (Shailene Woodley). She’s had thyroid cancer and it damaged her lungs so she must travel with an oxygen tank. Her mother encourages her to go to a cancer counseling meeting where she meets slightly older Gus (Ansel Elgort) who lost a leg to cancer the previous year. Hazel is trying to keep her distance but Gus is persistent and with humor and charm wins Hazel’s affections.


Hazel’s dream is to speak with the author of her favorite book. She has many questions to ask this man, Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe), but he lives in Amsterdam and won’t answer her queries unless she travels to The Netherlands to meet him. At first her medical condition and her parents’ limited finances prevent her from traveling overseas, but Gus arranges with a make-a-wish foundation to make her dream of meeting Van Houten come true. The journey yields bittersweet surprises as the two star-crossed lovers attempt to meet their many challenges.


Scott, I didn’t know what to expect from this movie. I knew it was based on a Young-Adult novel that was very popular. I kind of expected a saccharine, glossed-over presentation of young love in the shadow of cancer.

I was pleasantly surprised when the story unfolded to reveal a thoughtful and charming story about young love that was … tinged by the shadow of cancer. We last saw Shailene Woodley in last Spring’s Divergent where she played a young girl in a dystopian future world. So much of today’s Young Adult fiction is cast in just such a world that to find a story that dealt with real people in real situations was refreshing and welcome.


Greg, I agree that the quality of this film is surprising. Given the topic, the movie could easily have devolved into a forgettable made-for-TV level product. But it didn’t. We’re treated to two stellar performances from Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, whose moving depiction of two cancer-ridden teens in love is deeply inspiring. These are two great characters whom we like for their intelligence, courage, and realism. They were highly convincing in these difficult roles to play.

Hazel is the primary hero of the story, although one could argue that she and Augustus are duo heroes. I think of Hazel as the main hero because she narrates the story and also because she is the character who grows and evolves as events unfold all around her. Hazel is transformed by Augustus and also by Anne Frank, whose recorded voice in Amsterdam inspires Hazel to hold onto hope and savor the beauty and love all around her. The hero journey evokes painful emotions but somehow manages to be uplifting, too.


I agree. Hazel is the hero of the story and she is acted upon by her catalyst Gus. She starts out as isolated and wanting not to get involved in people’s lives. She considers herself to be “a hand grenade waiting to explode,” taking the lives of those around her in her wake. It is Gus’s determination to love Hazel whether she wants him to or not – and that cracks her shell. Once he gets under her skin she starts to grow and flourish.

The villain here is either time or cancer. Of course, the two are connected. We feel that Hazel can’t survive very long in her condition. And we also witness her laboring to climb the stairs at the Anne Frank house and wonder if she’ll make it.

Regardless of whether time or cancer is the villain, I was pleased that the storytellers gave Hazel and Gus a true opposition character in the form of author Peter Van Houten. He is a recluse after having written his novel based on the death of his daughter from cancer – a book that Hazel is obsessed with. When she meets him he is rude to the extreme and completely self-absorbed. He was a good villainous character, but not the main villain of the story.


Greg, it is true that cancer is the villain of this story. It is tempting to say that the author whom Hazel adores, Peter Van Houten, plays a villain role. But Van Houten is very much a character reminiscent of Angelina Jolie’s character in Maleficent. Like her, Van Houten is embittered by loss and is redeemed by love. His rude, jerky behavior actually helps bring Hazel and Gus together, as they consummate their love shortly after their dark encounter with him.


Yes, nothing says redemption like teenage sex. I really enjoyed this film, despite the crowd of weeping teenage girls in the audience. Many have called The Fault in Our Stars the Love Story for a new generation. And I agree. It was a thoughtful and masterfully crafted story (based on the real life of Esther Earl whose video blogs can still be found on YouTube despite the fact the she succumbed to her cancer in 2010). I give Fault 5 out of 5 Reels.

The hero story is hard to deny. Hazel starts out pushing everyone away and ends up loving more than ever. I hate to say that the ending is telescoped from the beginning, but still it was a powerful drama worthy of viewing by those of any age. I give Hazel 4 out of 5 Heroes.

I’m having a tough time rating cancer on our villain’s scale. It follows the pattern of the hidden villain, never becoming visible yet affecting our heroes at every turn. It is an insidious disease (or cluster of diseases) and is hard to wrap your mind around it. The cancer we see on-screen is muted and sugar-coated. Compared to the profound presentation of other diseases we’ve seen recently (witness Dallas Buyer’s Club) I can only give cancer as depicted in The Fault in Our Stars 2 out of 5 Villains.

Movie: reel-5 Villain: villain-2 Hero: h-logo-4


The Fault In Our Stars directly tackles two of the heaviest themes in storytelling: Love and Death. Such a jarring collision with these topics could have yielded sappy, disastrous results, but this movie has the biggest heart of any film I’ve seen in years. Woodley and Elgort carry the show masterfully and made everyone in the theater cry. I give this film a heartfelt 5 out of 5 Reels.

Every hero sets out on an important journey, and in The Fault In Our Stars Hazel’s blossoming relationship with Gus and trip to Amsterdam transforms her on many different levels. Hazel is an unforgettable hero, and Gus is her unforgettable mentor, lover, friend, and symbol of life and hope. The hero and her friends, allies, and companions are all present in full-form and are quite moving. I give Hazel 5 out of 5 Heroes.

As you note, Greg, the film’s villain, cancer, is hard to evaluate. Cancer doesn’t have an intriguing backstory like a human villain would have. Cancer doesn’t have interesting facial expressions, quirky mannerisms, henchmen, or a diabolical laugh. But cancer is the Adolf HItler of diseases, a horrific affliction that attacks and torments its victims on every conceivable level. The Fault In Our Stars does a fine job illustrating all the terrible ways that cancer destroys a human. It’s hard to assign a villain rating but I’d say this film’s effective depiction of cancer deserves 4 out of 5 Villains.

Movie: reel-5 Villain: villain-4 Hero: h-logo-5

Edge of Tomorrow •••1/2

Edge_of_Tomorrow_PosterStarring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton
Director: Doug Liman
Screenplay: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth
Action/Sci-Fi, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: June 6, 2014

Cage: Single, N-P Moral, Pro (Enlightened Lone Hero)

Mimics: System, N-N Moral, Ant (Untransformed Nature Pure Evil Villains)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

reel-3 480px-One-half.svg villain-2villain-half h-logo-3h-logo-half

scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, I would say ‘let’s review this movie’ but I’m pretty sure we’ve done it already.


It’s deja-vu all over again. Let’s recap Tom Cruise’s new film Edge of Tomorrow.


We meet Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), the spokesperson for the United Defense Forces, a combined military force that is attempting to repel an extraterrestrial invasion by a species known as the Mimics. Cage is sent to General Brigham’s office and is surprised when Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) orders him to participate as a soldier in a wide scale invasion of Mimic-occupied France. When Cage resists and attempts to blackmail Brigham, the General has him arrested and sent to an English base as a private about to be deployed to France.


Cage is outfitted with a mechanical exoskeleton and lifts off in a heli-transport with his new troop of soldiers bound for a D-Day sort of invasion. They crash land and are met with overwhelming forces – as if the Mimic enemy knew they were coming. Cage is all thumbs with his new gear and is quickly killed in combat.

He then immediately wakes up back at the base where he was shanghaied and relives the experience of meeting the soldiers, flying into battle, crashing, and getting killed. On his third incarnation, he meets up with Rita (Emily Blunt) – a soldier who is well-known as the fiercest of the Army’s warriors. He relates his experiences to her and she tells him to find her when he wakes up.

When he wakes up at the beginning of his day again, he seeks out Rita and relates his experiences to her. Much to his surprise, she believes him. She relates that she herself had been infected with the ability to “reset the day” but had lost it.  Rita tells him that he must go into training to help them find the “Omega” alien who, once killed, will destroy the enemy and save the Earth.


Greg, I have a confession to make. I’m a sucker for time travel movies, especially ones that are smartly made and contain all the elements of a good hero story. One of my criticisms of previous Tom Cruise movies has been that his characters rarely show any change or growth. Because Edge of Tomorrow is one of those repeating time-loop movies, much like Groundhog Day, William Cage absolutely must change in order to break the temporal cycle. So we’re given a satisfying story of personal growth that redeems not only the character but saves the world as well.

Cage starts out a coward and a fool. We don’t like him very much, and when we learn that he is squeamish it doesn’t seem likely he can survive countless blood-soaked battles with the Mimics. Dire circumstances, however, gradually transform Cage into an invincible warrior. What we have is a dark Groundhog Day on steroids, a film that works on many different levels, including the all-important emotional level.


Scott, I’m glad you mentioned Groundhog Day because that is the criticism I have of Edge of Tomorrow. It takes the central idea of Bill Murray’s film and applies it to war. Since Groundhog Day is such a well-known film, the filmmakers must offer something above and beyond what we already know must happen. We already know that the hero will recycle through his life experiences and learn and relearn lessons until he becomes proficient. Edge does offer one new thread which is the ability for the hero to lose the gift of time travel. However, once this fact is mentioned in the story, you know there has to come a point in the film where the hero must lose the power. It made Edge rather predictable.

I’ll agree with you on Cage’s growth in this film. He starts out as a wimp and a coward and when he finds himself in the predicament of reliving his life over again daily. We see him become a better man. He comes to care for his platoon-mates and falls in love with Rita, the beautiful war veteran. By the end of the film we are treated to a redefined man, one we hardly recognize.


Another difference between this film and Groundhog Day centers on what has to happen for the hero to escape from the time loop. Bill Murray’s character has to become a good man, but Tom Cruise’s character must do more than just change his nature; he must also destroy the Omega. In both Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, a woman is the central instrument of the man’s change. I think it’s no coincidence that the woman’s name is Rita in both movies.

The villains in Edge of Tomorrow — the Mimics — are somewhat novel in both their appearance and in their behavioral characteristics. The creatures are a strange spider-reptile hybrid that moves at hyper-speed. They also have the ability to use time travel to anticipate their enemy’s next moves. The Mimics are also disappointing in some ways, and I’ll let you, Greg, describe why this is the case.


Thanks, Scott. Apparently the Mimics suffer the same malady that aliens from across time and space suffer from – that of being controlled by a singular, central mind. When Cage destroys the “Omega” beast, all the “Alpha” and “Drone” aliens also stop working. This is a tired plot device that we’ve seen in such movies as Independence Day, Divergent, RoboCop, and Transcendence, just to name a few.


Edge of Tomorrow recycles a few old ideas but offers two rock-solid hours of fun and adventure. Tom Cruise turns in one of his best performances in years here, and for a refreshing change he plays a character who evolves throughout the course of the film. Because the movie is very well done and because I love sci-fi stories that utilize time travel effectively, I’m happy to award Edge of Tomorrow 4 Reels out of 5.

The hero story in this film is appealing on several levels. Cage embarks on a dangerous journey in an unfamiliar world, and to achieve his mission he must undergo a transformation that is satisfying to watch. We’re treated to several key features of the hero’s journey, such as Cage’s encounter with Rita, a remarkably strong female character who plays a mentoring role in helping Cage discover his missing inner quality. Rita is the key to Cage’s redemption and also steals his heart. In my view William Cage is a worthy hero who deserves a rating of 4 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, Greg, the two formidable forces that Cage must overcome are the Mimics and his own weakness of character. There are also a few other oppositional characters who get in Cage’s way, such as General Brigham and Sergeant Farrell. Pardon the pun, but the Mimics unfortunately do mimic prior sci-fi extra-terrestrials. But the good news is that the Mimics also have a unique look and intriguing time-shifting abilities. Overall, the villainous components of this movie are used to great effect, leading me to conclude that Edge of Tomorrow deserves a strong rating of 4 Villains out of 5.

Movie: reel-4Villains: villain-4 Heroes: h-logo-4


I really hate to say this, but I didn’t have the same impression of this movie as you did, Scott. The graphics and battle scenes are definitely worth the price of admission. But Edge of Tomorrow borrowed so many plot devices from other movies that I can only give it 3 out of 5 Reels.

Cage as the hero undergoes a good transformation which is gradual and believable (in the context of the sci/fi elements). But we’ve seen this done before exceedingly well in Groundhog Day. One redeeming element that I found in Edge of Tomorrow was Emily Blunt as a completely believable female warrior. We don’t see that everyday. Still, I can only give Tom Cruise’s character 3 out of 5 Heroes.

Finally, we’re so far apart on the villains here. The Mimics are such a retread from other movies and have so little to offer other than being evil, mindless, bad guys that I can’t give them such a lofty score as you did. I’ll grant you that there are other oppositional forces in play, but in my mind, it’s the Mimics who are the main villains and they simply don’t measure up to other fine villains we’ve seen this year (witness The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past). I give the Mimics just 1 Villain out of 5.

Movie: reel-3 Villains: villain-1 Heroes: h-logo-3

2013 In Review

We love to review movies and making up our top picks for 2013 was even more fun. We were given a moment of pause when a reader wrote the following note which points out that a lot of our favorite films came late in the season. He challenged us to look back at the films from earlier in the year and think about whether the recency of our viewing influenced our favorite movies. Here’s his note:

I’m struck by a couple of things. One is how you are both heavily tilted in favor of movies currently showing or produced for the current Oscar season. It’s a human trait to be influenced by what we have most recently been exposed to. A good exercise for you might be to go back to movies time January-August 2013 time frame and make new lists out of that limited pool, and then see which if any of them might make your final choices for the year a little different than it is. ...

So we did go back and look at our reviews over the last year and the numbers are telling. First, here’s a histogram of our rating of the movies from 2013. The height of the bar represents how many movies got the ranking along the bottom of the graph:

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 8.03.37 PM

 

What this graph shows is that we have a nice bell-shaped curve indicating that our ratings are normally distributed. In other words, there were a lot of movies that were average (3 Reels) and relatively few that were terrible (0-1.5 Reels) and relatively few that were great (4-5 Reels).

Another graph shows how many Reels and Heroes we doled out in 2013:

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 8.04.04 PM

 

This graphic shows that (roughly speaking) the quality of a movie is related to the quality of the hero.

Finally, this next graph shows a plot of the quality of movies (in Reels) from the beginning of 2013 through to the end: (click to enlarge)

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 7.57.21 PMThere is a blue line through the middle of the graph represents the median (3.0 Reels). The gray area represents the months of January through April as well as October. Most films in those months were rated as 3.0 reels or less. Then during the yellow months (May-August) the ratings hover arond 3.0 (with an occasional spike). Finally the blue months (September, November, and December) had great ratings in the high 4.0-5.0 Reels.

So there is a reason that our “Best Films of 2013” picks favored movies that we saw more recently – the movies at the end of the year are actually better than the ones at the beginning of the year.

Thanks to David Thomas for his posting from our “Best Films of 2013” analysis from last January.

 

Maleficent ••••

Maleficent_posterStarring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley
Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton, Charles Perrault
Action/Adventure/Family, Rated: PG
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: May 30, 2014

Maleficent: Single, P-N-P Moral, Pro (Redeemed Lone Hero)

Stefan: Single, N-NN Moral, Ant (Untransformed Lone Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

reel-4 villain-4 h-logo-4

Scott, it looks like Angelina Jolie is back with a Tomb Raider sequel.


scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I’d say she’s sprouted her wings and gone beyond Lara Croft. Let’s recap.


We’re introduced to a very young faerie named Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) who lives in the Moors. The faerie world doesn’t get along with the human world so it’s quite a big deal when the young man Stefan (Sharlto Copley) appears to her. They strike up a friendship and eventually fall in love. The problem, though is that Stefan has ambitions to become a higher-up in the king’s court. This causes Stefan to abandon his new love. Over the years Stefan does grow in the king’s graces and he needs to impress the king and be named successor.


To gain the king’s favor, Stefan returns to the Moors and wins Maleficent’s heart again. One night he moves to stab her in her sleep, but he cannot bring himself to do it. Instead, he cuts off her wings and brings them to the king as proof of her death. Maleficent’s disfigurement turns her into a bitter, vengeful witch-like figure. When she discovers that the new King Stefan and his queen have given birth to a daughter named Aurora (Elle Fanning), Maleficent inflicts a curse upon the baby such that Aurora will fall into an endless sleep and can only be revived by a true love’s kiss.


Scott, this is a prequel to the classic Sleeping Beauty story. Maleficent does for Sleeping Beauty what Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz. The story focuses on the evil queen and how she came to be who she is. The production values are amazing. The world of the Moors is colorful and full of interesting creatures.

I found the story to be captivating and moved along at a nice pace. I rarely felt bored as we were carried from scene to scene as the story twisted along this Villain’s Journey. We start out with a young, happy, vibrant Maleficent. Then she is betrayed by her lover. Then she curses the baby Aurora and the story switches to the growth of Aurora. Maleficent also grows during this period. Disney created a beautiful world full of color and life.


I agree, Greg, that this is a fascinating tale. For me, Maleficent is first and foremost a story of a hero who can be misunderstood to be a villain. Beyond its obvious entertainment value, Maleficent highlights the fine line that exists between heroes and villains. Capitalizing on this ambiguity, and even toying with it, is no doubt one of the main goals of the film.

We’re introduced to a sweet young girl, a fairy with impressive wings, who seems by all appearances to be a heroic figure — or at least potentially one. After a man physically brutalizes her, she takes on a villainous persona. Bitterness consumes her and leads her to an act of vengeance that she later regrets. Most importantly, she falls in love with the very person who was the target of her vengeance. This love redeems her. We witness the healing power of love, as our fairy becomes the sweet person she once was. For me, this is a dramatic and powerful hero’s journey.


I was thrilled that we get the full round trip here. Maleficent starts out with all the characteristics a heroic character. She’s smart and happy and she does good deeds for those around her. Despite her physical superiority to other faerie people in the Moors, she’s their advocate and protector. Then once she is betrayed, she turns dark and starts down a path that appears to have no return. She puts up barriers to the Moors that the humans cannot penetrate. For a generation she steeps in her anger and builds a hatred for the humans. She reaches the pinnacle of her villainy when she lashes out at an innocent child. Aurora is cursed to fall into a deep sleep on the day of her 16th birthday.

Then Maleficent starts on the return path to heroism. She observes the child growing up and as she does she comes to love her. It is this love that touches Maleficent and causes her to return to goodness. Ultimately, Maleficent comes to defend Aurora and it is Aurora who saves Maleficent. It is a wonderful tale of a fall from grace and redemption.


Totally agree, Gregger. As the film’s narrator suggests, Maleficent may be both hero and villain, a combination that is needed to unify the human world with the faerie kingdom. Maleficent’s dual role allows us learn many things about the parallel journeys taken by heroes and villains. We learn that both heroes and villains are summoned to an unfamiliar world that challenges them in significant ways. We learn that both heroes and villains acquire a main mission, and they attract allies who help them and foes who oppose them. We learn that both heroes and villains are damaged goods in some way, and that how they handle that damage ultimately comes to define them.

We also learn how villains differ from heroes. Maleficent is a character who illustrates beautifully how heroes find ways to redeem themselves, even when they appear to be irreparably damaged. Heroes never let physical or emotional injury define them, at least not in the long run. Heroes transcend difficult circumstances. Villains succumb to them. Maleficent rises above her pain, thereby cementing her heroic status.


I might argue the Maleficent is the anti-villain. She has to have something to catalyze her to turn from villainy back to heroism. If it weren’t for Aurora’s beauty and love, Maleficent would have been lost forever. We’ve seen this catalyst in last weeks’ Million Dollar Arm. In that movie the lead character was going down a dark path until his girlfriend and the young men from India show him a different way. Both these stories remind us how very close a hero is to a villain.

Maleficent is a colorful, suspenseful, and thoughtful examination of the psychology of villainy. I heartily recommend it both for adults and children. Although, personally, I thought some parts were too dark for younger children. I give Maleficent 4 out of 5 Reels.

Maleficent is a great heroic character traveling first from innate heroic qualities, then diving into the depths of villainy due to a painful betrayal and then the return to heroism through the catalyst of love and beauty. Angelina Jolie was just amazing in the role. I give Maleficent 4 out of 5 Heroes. And because we get the full villain’s backstory, I give Maleficent 4 out of 5 Villains as well.

Movie: reel-4 Villains: villain-4 Heroes: h-logo-4


Maleficent isn’t a great movie but its lead character, Maleficent herself, is one of the most compelling and complex Disney characters ever to appear on the big screen. Angelina Jolie shines in the role and gives Maleficent the depth and nuance needed to portray character’s long, painful, yet ultimately redemptive journey. I’m torn between giving the movie 3 versus 4 Reels but because I enjoyed the layers of this character so much I’m going to award Maleficent 4 out of 5 Reels.

The ambiguity of the heroic status of Maleficent, and the twists and turns that her character experiences, are great fun to behold. I honestly didn’t know whether her turn to darkness was permanent or temporary, and I was delighted to see a character that is redeemed by love. Such a message offers hope to all of humanity. Like you, Greg, I also award Maleficent 4 Heroes out of 5.

The true villain of the story is Stefan, who is slave to his deep desire for power and glory. The only love he knows is the love of conquest and ambition. He’s not a particularly deep or interesting villain, as his role is mainly to flesh out the depth of Maleficent’s character. Because Maleficent herself shows a villainous side and showcases the fine line between heroism and villainy, I give the pairing of Stefan and Maleficent 4 out of 5 Villains.

Movie: reel-4 Villains: villain-4 Heroes: h-logo-4

Million Dollar Arm •••

Million_Dollar_Arm_posterStarring: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenplay: Thomas McCarthy
Biography/Drama/Sports, Rated: PG
Running Time: 124 minutes
Release Date: May 16, 2014

JB Bernstein: Single, N-P Moral, Pro (Transformed Enlightened Lone Hero)

JB Bernstein: Single, N-P Moral, Ant (Transformed Self Villain)

SPOILERS WITHIN!

reel-3 villain-2villain-half  h-logo-3

scott
(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, strangely enough, it looks like Disney has made a movie about the arms race.


No, it’s a new baseball movie about finding new talent in India. Let’s recap


We meet JB Bernstein (Jon Hamm), a sports agent who is struggling to attract clients and is on the brink of financial collapse. He concocts an idea to create a reality show that promises to reap fame and fortune. The idea involves going to India to recruit cricket players with the raw skills to become professional baseball pitchers in the United States. J.B. obtains financial backing from businessman Mr. Chang (Tzi Ma), who gives J.B.’s agency only one year to complete the task.


In India JB discovers things don’t work as they do in the US. He has to grease the skids with backdoor deals. He meets an enterprising young man in Amit (Pitobash) who loves baseball and offers to work for JB for free. JB scours the countryside looking for players but finds only two: Rinku (Suraj Sharma) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal). Ironically, neither boy is a cricket fan.

JB brings the boys home to America and convinces the USC pitching coach to train them. JB is focused on the deal and neglects to give the boys the attention they need. Tenant and neighbor Brenda (Lake Bell) urges him to be more sympathetic to the two boys who are far from home and only aim to please.


Based on a true story, Million Dollar Arm is a pleasant Disney tale that delivers two different underdog stories within the same movie. The underdogs are JB, a struggling sports agent, and two Indian baseball prospects who are not given much chance to succeed at the game. All these underdogs prevail, of course, and they do so in a predictable way. Yet somehow the movie charms us with the sweetness and innocence of several key characters.

Greg, this movie works because Disney has spent almost a century perfecting the formula for tugging on audience’s heartstrings. The two Indian baseball prospects are wonderful young men. Yes, they are naive and jittery, but they wear their generous, innocent hearts on their sleeves. JB is a darker character, self-absorbed to a fault, but lurking behind his careless egocentricity we see hints of inherent goodness. The job of the movie is to develop that goodness into its fullness, which it accomplishes nicely.


I agree, Scott. I’m not a baseball fan, so sports movies occasionally leave me in the dust (witness last spring’s Draft Day). But this isn’t so much a story about sports as it is about overcoming our weaknesses.  The young men in the story are honest and eager to please. They see this as an opportunity and also an obligation to reflect positively upon their families back home.

JB is both a hero and a villain in this story. He is the character who is most transformed by the events in the film. But it is his inner demons – those of greed and ambition – that get in the way of seeing the good in people. And it is this missing inner quality that threatens to doom him to failure in his task. Happily, through the intervention of a good woman and the good nature of the young men, JB overcomes his focus on the business of the game and is reminded of what makes baseball fun.


You’re right, Greg. JB doesn’t need an outside villain, as he is his own worst enemy here. JB is mentored by two people in this story. Besides the woman you mention, early in the movie JB’s contact person in India, Vivek (Darshan Jariwala), plants the seeds of JB’s transformation. Vivek tells JB that the two Indian boys represent more than just a great business opportunity; they are first and foremost an important “responsibility.” This wisdom reminds me of Stan Lee’s oft-quoted line, With great power comes great responsibility. It certainly applies to JB, who at first wields his power in selfish and reckless ways before he learns that people come before profit.


I think Million Dollar Arm doesn’t quite hit a home run with its easy-to-digest sports story. It is predictable and unsurprising in many ways. But it has an honesty and good naturedness that makes it an enjoyable movie to watch. I give the film 3 out of 5 Reels.

JB is definitely a man fighting himself in this story. I was happy to see his slow transformation from all-business jerk to understanding jerk. JB gets 3 out of 5 Heroes from me.

There isn’t much of a villain story for us to take home. JB is his own enemy and as such doesn’t have much to overcome. I give him just 2 Villains out of 5.

Movie: reel-3 Villain: villain-2 Hero: h-logo-3


We’re on the same page, Greg. Million Dollar Arm is formulaic to a fault yet somehow manages to succeed as a worthwhile film due to its charming cast and fulfilling take-home message. There isn’t much new ground covered here, but I enjoyed Million Dollar Arm and recommend it for people who are in the mood for a feel-good movie. Like you, Greg, I award it 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero story is interesting and follows the conventional path of sending our hero JB to India, an unfamiliar place where he is a fish out of water. Several key allies assist him on his mission, and while in India he encounters resistance and also cultivates a love interest. Ironically, she is a woman he Skypes as she lives in America. She ultimately helps JB discover his missing inner quality, which is his sense of humanity. Again, it’s a bit formulaic for a woman to help a man reform himself, but Million Dollar Arm does it in an appealing way. JB deserves 3 solid Heroes out of 5.

The villain, if there is one, is JB himself, or at least it is the dark side of JB’s character. We learn in this movie that heroes find ways to overcome their dark sides, whereas villains are either blind to these sides or cannot summon the conscience to overcome the darkness. Greed is a powerful human force and has destroyed many people, and is thus a worthy adversary here. For this reason I’m willing to award the “villain” 3 out of 5 Villains.

Movie: reel-3 Villain: villain-3 Hero: h-logo-3